The 1881-S Morgan dollar is a large silver coin that was struck at the San Francisco branch of the United States Mint. Known more officially as the Liberty Head dollar, the Morgan dollar is named for designer George T. Morgan, who served as a U.S. Mint engraver from 1876 until his death in 1925. He was born in England and moved to the United States in 1876, where in October of that year he was hired as an assistant engraver under the Mint’s Chief Engraver William Barber.
Morgan designed many coins and patterns during his nearly four-decade tenure at the Mint, including the Columbian commemorative half dollars of 1892 and 1893. Notable among his patterns and non-circulating designs was the $100 Union gold coin, which was never actually struck.
While Morgan was a prolific engraver, his most famous coin remains the Morgan silver dollar, which was struck from 1878 through 1904 and once more in 1921. The model for the Liberty Head design that dominates the coin’s obverse was a Philadelphia schoolteacher named Anna Willess Williams, who agreed to serve as a Morgan’s model for the coin on the condition that her identity not be revealed. In the 19th century it would have been considered scandalous for a woman to serve as an artist’s model, and Williams legitimately risked losing her job as a teacher.
Soon after the first Morgan dollars were issued, Williams’ identity was leaked to the public. She was barraged by fan mail and individuals who attempted to visit her home. She also received offers to serve as an actress, but she rejected most of the public attention and spurned her role as the Morgan dollar’s model as “incident of [her] youth”. Far from being fired, she retired in 1924 and died unmarried at the age of 68 in 1926 – one year after Morgan himself.
While Morgan and Williams are long gone, their memory remains alive and well on the 1881-S Morgan silver dollar, which is by and large a relatively common coin in all but the highest uncirculated grades. More than 12.7 million 1881-S Morgans were struck, and enough of them remain today to fulfill general numismatic demands.
The leftward facing bust of Miss Liberty is topped with a Phrygian cap encircled with a ribbon bearing the inscription LIBERTY. Miss Liberty wears a crown adorned with cotton and wheat, which, in the 19th century, were two of the nation’s top crops.
Along the rim on the upper half of the obverse is the phrase E PLURIBUS UNUM. At the bottom center of the obverse near the rim is the coin’s date, 1881. 13 stars are seen on the obverse – seven on the lower left and six on the lower right; collectively these symbolize the original 13 colonies that joined to form the United States. At the base of Liberty’s neck is an “M” to serve as Morgan’s initial.
A heraldic eagle claims the reverse of the 1881-S Morgan dollar. The eagle’s wings spread across much of the upper half of the reverse, with the tips of the wings virtually touching parts of the upper reverse rim of the coin. The eagle clutches an olive branch in its right claw to symbolize peace, while a bundle of three arrows in the left claw represents the nation’s ability to defend itself in war.
A laurel wreath encircles much of the central reverse design, and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST is centered in part of the field space between the eagles outstretched wings. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA rides along the upper portion of the reverse rim while the denomination ONE DOLLAR is centered at the bottom near the rim, with a single six-pointed star near either end of the denominational inscription. The coin’s “S” mintmark is centered above and between the “D” and “O” of “DOLLAR,” just under a bow at the bottom of the laurel wreath.
The edge of the 1881-S Morgan dollar is reeded.
Engraver George T. Morgan was born in Birmingham, England in 1845. He emigrated to the United States and began work as an assistant to Mint Chief Engraver William Barber and continued to produce patterns and commemoratives under the administration of Barber’s son, Charles. Morgan himself became Chief Engraver in 1917. He died in 1925.
|Year Of Issue:||1881|
|Mint Mark:||S (San Francisco)|
|Alloy:||90% Silver, 10% Copper|
|OBV Designer||George T. Morgan|
|REV Designer||George T. Morgan|
* * *
Allen, Leroy C. and A. George Mallis. Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars, 4th Edition. Worldwide Ventures (1998). Print. 75.